If Abe resigns, it won’t solve Japan’s problems

Everyone I meet these days asks me the same question: “Is Shinzo Abe going to resign as Prime Minister of Japan?”

My answer is “I hope not.” However, I wouldn’t be surprised if he does. I base my reply on conversations I am having with experienced journalists and by looking through the huge number of stories in the Japanese newspapers and on websites about Mr Mr Abe’s declining popularity. It now looks difficult for him to win a third, three-year term as the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

The LDP is due to hold a vote to elect a party leader in September. Mr Abe may have to announce he is not standing before then. Effectively, that means he could resign at any moment.

The problem with surveys of public opinion is that they tend to reinforce whatever the dominant view is in the media. The press have a negative assessment of Mr Abe’s domestic performance – and this, unsurprisingly, is shared by their readers. However, opinion polls are a poor way to judge a leader’s diplomatic skills or his international standing.

I am not qualified to know whether there is any real substance to the allegations of suspected cronyism which are being reported in the press. But I was struck by an article published this week on LinkedIn by Edo Naito, who wrote that the scandal in Japan is not about politics but actually reflects a crisis in its bureaucracy. He says that if any commercial bank in Japan made the kind of mistakes we are now seeing across all sections of the government, they would have been run out of business.

“If any commercial bank in Japan made the kind of mistakes we are now seeing across all sections of the government, they would have been run out of business” – Edo Naito

Mr Naito also observes that while the media and the opposition obsess over the Prime Minister’s “accountability” they overlook serious failings within national and local government. He argues that political resignations cannot solve such systemic problems.

Reputation at stake

In my latest article for the Japanese newspaper Sankei, I make the argument that if Mr Abe goes, it will damage Japan’s international reputation.

He has been a skilled diplomat, particularly this year, gaining unexpected concessions from President Trump and winning trust with China. Following his trip to Florida, it would be a great shame if he was unable to take up the tentative offer of an official visit to Beijing – a diplomatic milestone.

At a talk about China I attended this week, I was told that President Xi has made this rule: “You should not externalise internal party conflicts”. In the rigidly controlled Chinese Communist Party there is little scope for that. In a lively democracy, with a free press, like Japan, there is always space for rivalry, gossip and criticism.

Unfortunately, the domestic Japanese media’s relentless interest in activities in local government in Ehime and Osaka tends to add to the overall impression that Japan is inward-looking, rather than a player on the world stage.

I believe that if Mr Abe’s term in office is cut short because of domestic political scandal, Japan will lose a leader who has won much respect internationally. Its status both in China and America is at risk of being diminished.

As China’s envoy visits, Japan continues its preparations for war

Around a million Chinese tourists visit Japan annually and most are unaware that the Japanese Self Defence Force is practicing for a war with their country.

Chinese people receive a warm welcome and enjoy their holidays. They spend generously and their tourism helps build good international relationships and a thriving trade for Japan’s hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.

Southern war games

However, on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, Japan is training its forces to respond to China’s growing military power. Around 1,500 members of the newly formed Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade – Japan’s version of the American marines – recently took part in an exercise in which they pretended to recapture land from invaders; that meant practicing for a war with China.

The drill was to prepare for a situation in which one of Japan’s uninhabited islands in the Senkaku chain is captured by China in a territorial dispute. China calls the islands in the South China Sea the Diaoyu islands – and claims them as its own.

Chinese military activities around the islands have soared in recent years in terms of the volume and frequency of both military aircraft and naval vessels, a development that has alerted not only Japan but also Taiwan, which is situated even closer to the Senkaku Islands than Japan.

Meeting Colonel Zhou Bo

This week, I discussed the islands with a Chinese senior colonel, Zhou Bo. He began by stating that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army plans to become a first class military force by the middle of the 21st Century.

Colonel Zhou Bo said: “The Japanese have complained that the frequent exercises by the Chinese PLA in the South China Sea have made them very much exhausted. That is because we have more ships and more aircraft than the Japanese. If the Japanese scramble their aircraft whenever we move beyond the first chain of islands, they will become exhausted. But I say, why should Japan become exhausted? The Chinese ships and aircraft are moving within the Miyako Strait, in line with international law.”

“China is operating in line with international law”

Senior Colonel Zhou Bo

A different kind of army

This contentious border issue has been a diplomatic problem between Japan and China for decades. Japan regards China as a persistent threat in the region and this is part of the reason that prime minister Shinzo Abe hopes to hold a referendum which could transform the Self Defence Force into a full army, authorised to fight abroad in support of its allies. In order to make that change, he would need support in a referendum to revise the constitution – a step he may well take following the 2020 Olympic Games.

Diplomatic opportunity

Before then, there is a chance to calm things down during friendly talks with China. This week, Wang Yi has become the first Chinese foreign minister to visit Tokyo in more than eight years. He will attend the Japan-China High-Level Economic Dialogue, alongside Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono.

Then early next month, the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is expected to attend a trilateral summit in Tokyo with Shinzo Abe and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-In and there are provisional plans for Mr Abe to visit China in the autumn.

No doubt Japan will extend gracious hospitality to its Chinese guests. One hopes this creates the goodwill to ensure constructive talks, aimed at resolving the dangerous disagreement that festers in Japan’s deep south.

Abe demands meeting with North Korea’s Kim

The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has announced that he wants to take part in a meeting between Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, which is due to take place this summer.

Mr Abe told the Diet in Tokyo that Japanese diplomats have been communicating with the North Koreans via an intermediary in China. His comments came just as Kim Jong-Un was visiting Beijing, according to Bloomberg News. It was Mr Kim’s first foreign trip since taking power in 2011.

Mr Abe hopes to raise the issue of abducted Japanese citizens with Mr Kim, either directly, or through Mr Trump. Mr Abe will make his case to the US president when he flies to Washington for talks next month. He has also asked the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, to raise the abduction issue with Mr Kim during the inter-Korean summit, which is scheduled to take place in late April.

However, it seems improbable that the North Koreans will allow Mr Abe to attend their meeting with Mr Trump. Nor are they likely to take any steps to release the Japanese people who were abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.

Japan’s dilemma

Japan faces a dilemma on how to accommodate the North Koreans. Hawkish politicians say talks and diplomacy are ineffective and they claim the best response is to press for regime change through force. These conservatives find an ally in Donald Trump’s ultra-hawkish new national security advisor, John Bolton, who has advocated the use of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea.

Expert insight

This week, I discussed North Korea with the former British ambassador to Pyongyang, John Everard. He said there is no clear agenda for the Kim-Trump meeting and noted that there is currently no serving US Ambassador to South Korea.

“We keep talking about the summit between the US and the North Korea as a done deal. But is it?” he asked.

Mr Everard suggested that the meeting could be cancelled if Mr Trump comes under pressure from from his hawkish advisors or if there is a poor outcome to the inter-Korean summit, which is due to take place before the Trump-Kim meeting.

Serious threat 

Mr Everard said: “The North Koreans believe they are on a roll. They think they have a winning hand and now is the time to play it. Of course, everyone likes the idea of dialogue – but we need to be clear-sighted because North Korea is a very serious threat.”

Mr Everard believes that if Mr Trump or Mr Kim sense they are losing face they might walk out and the summit may fail. “If either party storms out that would put us in a far worse position – a broken summit would be a disaster,” he warned.

Many thanks to the Commonwealth Journalists Association for the invitation to the meeting about the Korean situation at the House of Lords.


Shinzo Abe loses trust amid scandal allegations

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is trying to shake off a scandal which has also tainted his wife and one of his most trusted political allies.

This week he appeared before members of parliament in Tokyo to defend himself but protests continue and the Japanese media are full of the story.

However, as a long-serving and shrewd politician, Mr Abe has often escaped from problems in the past. So far, he remains in power – while the people around him are taking some of the blame.


There are several aspects to the current scandal. The first is a paper trail which seems to link the prime minister and his wife to an act of favouritism. The allegation is that Mr Abe’s wife, Akie, arranged the sale of land to an associate at a price that was “too good to be fair,” as Bloomberg Businessweek put it.

Then there are allegations of a cover-up – with somebody deleting Mr Abe’s name and the name of his wife from the official records. The Ministry of Finance says that was the fault of one of its bureaucrats, who has subsequently resigned.

So far, the Finance Minister, Taro Aso, has not quit his job but he did cancel a trip to Buenos Aires to join other finance ministers from the G20 this week.

Right wing agenda

Another concern is that the land deal was with a right-wing group, which has a harsh, nationalist agenda.

The Economist says the land was for a school to be run by Moritomo Gakuen, an educational group whose curriculum includes daily bowing to pictures of the emperor, patriotic chanting and “disdain for China and South Korea.”

That has inflamed Mr Abe’s opponents on the left, who see him as a nationalist and a liability.

Reuters reports that two thousand people protested on the streets outside the prime minister’s office on Friday, calling for Mr Abe and Mr Aso to resign.

Such protests are relatively rare in Japan and are highly effective for keeping the story in the headlines.

Democracy and resignations

One of the unusual characteristics of Japanese politics is that the same political party, the LDP, nearly always wins elections.

So when people feel fed up with the LDP, they tend to criticise its leadership. It is then relatively easy for the press to whip up any small scandal or even sense of discontent into a resignation issue.

In the past, this has led the LDP party to replace its leaders frequently – which explains why Japan often had a new prime minister every year or two.

Mr Abe’s different. He’s been in his job since 2012 and intends to hang on until after the Olympic Games in 2020.

For those outside Japan, it seems curious that a relatively minor scandal threatens such a long-serving and successful leader.

But as the Asahi Shimbun newspaper points out, Mr Abe did say that if there was proof that he or his wife had caused misconduct by the Ministry of Finance, he would quit.

That has left his opponents eager to link him to the suspicious land sale.

It also leaves the press seeking more allegations about this matter, which undermines Mr Abe’s credibility as leader.

Daddy dog and Mr Son’s 300 year vision for Softbank

This week, I have been thinking about a famous white dog and his company’s plan for the next 300 years.

The dog has an unusual name: Otosan, which means “father.” He’s the mascot of Softbank, founded by the hugely ambitious Masayoshi Son. He is Japan’s richest man and its best communicator.

The dog is a fluent Japanese speaker, too and can also play baseball and golf. He frequently wears sunglasses.
I am delighted to be invited to speak about Mr Son and Otosan the dog at a big event in London this June called the Internet of Manufacturing conference.

If you would like to come along and hear the talk, please send me a message.

Softbank is not a bank

The first thing to say about Mr Son’s company, Softbank, is that it is not a bank – it’s a technology conglomerate which is rapidly expanding into many fields, including insurance and financial services.

I am grateful to a reporter called Landon Thomas Jr. for his article in the New York Times in which he draws attention to a presentation slide deck used by Mr Son in 2010. It’s a splendid deck of images – brimming with emotion and bright pictures – and it reveals that Mr Son has a growth strategy designed to carry Softbank forward for 300 years.

Like all the best slide decks, it uses clear images and simple words to help people connect with the key points. It shows that Mr Son sees himself as harnessing the digital revolution based on artificial intelligence and big data.

Mr Son’s philosophy is written on one of the slides: “Endeavouring to benefit society and the economy and maximise enterprise value by fostering the sharing of wisdom and knowledge gained through the IT revolution.”

That reminds me of many mission statements in Japan, where companies put their social goals ahead of their duties towards customers, staff or shareholders.

Shareholder joy

Nevertheless, shareholders have done well. Softbank Corporation’s shares are listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange and the New York Times points out that a 10-year investment in those shares would have outperformed the Nikkei index by yielding a return of around 300%. There are reports that Softbank may now be preparing to list parts of the company in London.

London is where Rajeev Misra, who heads the Vision Fund which handles Softbank’s investments, is based. He’s a top Wall Street financier who used to work for Deutsche Bank.

The fund is ready to invest $100 billion dollars. “Our desire is to see more deals in Europe,” Mr Misra told CNBC earlier this year. While the Vision Fund has invested heavily in the US, India and Asia, Europe remains something of a blank spot.

Having said that, when it does splash out in Europe, it has plenty of money to spend and it sometimes ends up investing in organisations which you might find surprising. Last year it led a $500 million investment in a virtual-reality startup called Improbable Worlds, based in London.

Since then, Mr Son has been on an investment spree globally and SoftBank was involved in more than half of the ten biggest venture capital deals around the world last year.

Despite Brexit, Japan sticks to Britain

Toyota has pledged to increase its investment in the UK, despite concerns among Japanese businesses about the implications of Brexit.

The announcement follows a meeting between Toyota’s European president, Johan van Zyl, and Prime Minister Theresa May at Downing Street.

Toyota will build the next-generation Auris hatchback at its Derbyshire plant. Engines for the model will be made in Wales and the company said the latest announcement will help to secure 3,000 jobs across the two UK sites.

Nissan and Honda have also agreed to build new models in Britain.

Mr van Zyl said: “Toyota has been here for 25 years. We are a long-term investor.” However, he warned that will keep its approach towards the UK under review, post Brexit: “If the environment – not just for the UK but in general – is not conducive for doing business, we will not invest.”

Downing Street talks

His comments echoed those of the Japanese ambassador to London, Koji Tsuruoka, who led a delegation of Japanese companies to Downing Street last month.

Mr Tsuruoka said: “If there is no profitability of continuing operations in the UK, no private company, not only Japanese, can continue operations. It is as simple as that.”

Nissan, Toyota and Honda use Britain as a manufacturing base and export to Europe. In addition, a number of Japanese-owned firms operate in the automotive supply chain.

Special Treatment

Prime Minister May has suggested that car manufacturers should receive special treatment from the EU.

She also wants special arrangements for the financial sector, which includes many foreign banks based in the City of London, such as Nomura, Mizuho and Mitsubishi-UFJ.

However, European negotiators are cool towards the proposals.

At a meeting I attended this week, Britain’s ambassador to Japan Paul Madden said: “It’s well known that the Japanese government and companies were caught by surprise by the Brexit, as were many other people. They are concerned about tariffs and customs issues, regulatory issues and continued access to the workforce that they need. But my impression is that the atmosphere is calmer now than it was after the referendum, as individual companies work through their contingency plans during the inevitable uncertainty of the negotiation process.”

Opportunity continues

Despite the uncertainty posed by Brexit, the continued investment by Toyota, Nissan and Honda shows that Japanese companies are not departing the UK – and this is true for many sectors.

Firms which do not depend heavily upon cross-border trade between Britain and the EU see scope for business expansion.

Britain’s domestic market is receptive to Japanese goods and services and its economy has not slumped into a post-Brexit recession, as many economists claimed it would, even though the pound has fallen sharply.

Ambassador Madden said: “We are a large rich, sophisticated economy, with low corporate taxation and a business-friendly environment. We have a world class R&D base and some of the best universities in the world. Also, the City of London is a world class financial hub, with a world class talent pool, which we do not see changing.”

How to avoid a hangover in Japan

Many people in Japan claim that in order to build good relationships, they need to go out drinking with their colleagues after work.

But as someone who is cautious around alcohol, I’ve been wondering if it’s really necessary. After all, most of my successful working communication in Japan (and elsewhere) has been done over a cup of tea. I don’t thrive professionally when I am drunk!

I’m grateful to the blogger Tim Sullivan for providing me with some insight into Japanese drinking culture. Tim writes a very enjoyable blog called Intercultural Twilight Zone – Connecting Japan with the World.

Kikubari beer games

Tim drew my attention to a Japanese concept based upon the art of anticipation, known as kikubari. This noble concept is based on the idea of “distributing one’s spirit” and proactively taking action.

Tim says the best examples are observed after dark in izakaya style pub-restaurants, as Japanese men engage in a dangerous beer-pouring ritual. Each man around the table stays on the lookout for half-empty glasses, then takes the initiative to pour beer from a bottle for their friends. He does this without being requested to do so. Tim says: “An uninitiated – and very drunk – American friend of mine once quipped to me in slurred tones after a night out drinking with some Japanese men: “I had 53 half glasses of beer but I didn’t pour a single one!”

Fear of foreigners

Tim’s friend discovered that foreign visitors to Japan are typically treated with great courtesy and hospitality. But although I have observed many exceptions, I think it is fair to say that the majority of Japanese people find close dealings with foreigners something of a strain. Japanese men seem to sense particular unease when they are around foreign women, who they rarely date or marry. Perhaps they fear being being regarded as inferior. This can lead some men to behave in a way which strikes women as arrogant or boorish, particularly when they are drunk, and this further undermines their romantic attraction.

One might assume that social discomfort with foreigners motivates Japanese men to get roaring drunk when they socialise with us, although I have noticed that they are quite capable of rowdy drunkenness without any international support!

One sniff is enough

Many studies have been undertaken to try to find out if there is some unique psychological aspect of the Japanese digestion system which makes the impact of alcohol stronger than it is on other races. I am not medically qualified to comment but it seems to me much more likely that in a culture in which emotion is often suppressed, the arrival of alcoholic drinks upon the table signal that is acceptable to temporarily abandon inhibition. For that reason, some people seem to become drunk as soon as the top is removed from the first bottle of beer or sake.

The good news for anyone wishing to abstain is that the mood of the group does not depend on all the guests getting drunk. You can join in the laughter while remaining sober.

Any excuse

In most countries, drunken behaviour, particularly on a repeated basis scars one’s professional reputation. In Japan however, public drunkenness does not seem to carry any particular stigma. The phrase “I was drunk at the time” is used an excuse to get out of all kind of trouble – including breaches of all the normal conventions of politeness, privacy and hierarchy which dominate office life.

However, women are generally displeased by such debauchery. One Japanese lady told me that she considers her husband’s drinking sessions with his colleagues and bosses to be “very troublesome.” She believes it would be much better for them all to go for an occasional coffee instead of late night sessions in the izakaya before another long day in the office.

She also thinks it is a waste of money. As a precautionary measure, she now asks her husband to hand over his pay packet to her so that she can handle the family finances. However, there is an unspoken understanding that a few thousand yen for the beer fund will be removed from the envelope before she gets her hands on the cash.

Don’t punish economic animals for imaginary sins

I have been fortunate enough to meet many Japanese CEOs, including the bosses of huge multinational companies like Toyota, Nissan and Sony. I am often bemused when business leaders claim that they are “economic animals” but perhaps this dehumanisation helps them cope with the beatings by the foreign media, which are frequent and painful.

When Japan’s economy is in a period of recession or low GDP growth, stories appear in the international press scolding it for its moribund, weak, ailing and disappointing performance. Powerful men are humiliated by this pejorative language, which is often associated with moral failure.

Misjudging the mood

Critical words are churned out in response to even minor setbacks, such as small falls in the value of shares on the Tokyo Stock Exchange or surveys which suggest a temporary blip in business confidence. Such data is barely scientific and has little bearing on the national mood. But foreign journalists – unfamiliar with the Japanese emotional repertoire – tend to misread the signals.

Japanese journalists then sift through the foreign press, curious to know how their country is being perceived. When they find negative opinions voiced by foreigners, they use them as the basis of stories for their own newspapers and social media. The often misplaced criticisms of the foreigners are sometimes taken up as rods to beat the politicians, central bankers and business leaders.

Delusion and distortion

The former Tokyo Bureau Chief of the Financial Times newspaper David Pilling told me his experience of working in the media in Japan led him to question the habit of judging a society’s value on the basis of its GDP numbers. In his new book The Growth Delusion he addresses statistical flaws.

David told me: “I was a reporter in Japan for the Financial Times from 2001 to 2008, the Koizumi years. From the point of view of the FT, Japan was a total disaster because there was little or no GDP growth. When I was talking to London from Tokyo, the tone of the conversation would be: “What’s gone wrong? There must be terrible social deprivation. Are there lots of people outside on the streets sleeping rough?” And, of course, there are some homeless people in Japan but it was a not a huge number. The misconceptions were born of the fact that nominal GDP in Japan hadn’t budged for 20 years.”

David concluded that the GDP numbers gave a distorted sense of reality. He told me about the time he showed a foreign politician around Tokyo. “He was just amazed at the activity, the sophistication, the level of service, the money that was there and said, “Well, David, if this is a recession, I want one.” It turned out that the numbers are telling you one thing; your eyes, ears, common sense is telling you another.”

Precious memories

Why then, I asked him, is the concept of GDP held so dear?

David replied: “It was invented in the 1930s as a barometer of the US economy after the Wall Street Crash. President Roosevelt used it to decide how much money he should spend to revive the economy. At that time, there was really no single tool to measure the economy. You had things like freight car loadings, the stock market, the rate of unemployment, but you had no single number. So the concept of GDP was clever. It managed to compress everything that we do as humans – and something that we defined as “the economy” – into one number. Clever things tend to last.

You can read more about David Pilling’s ideas in The Growth Delusion: Wealth, Poverty, and the Well-Being of Nations published by Bloomsbury and Duggan. He has also written an excellent book on Japan called Bending Adversity, published by Penguin.

Is North Korea setting a trap?

If the organisers of the Winter Olympic Games awarded medals for cheerleading or propaganda, North Korea would have walked away with double gold.

The champion attention grabbers were the two hundred North Korean women who performed synchronised cheers throughout events which involved athletes from their country, playing alongside people from the host nation, South Korea.

At one point, the North Korean women raised masks to their faces which resembled Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of current dictator, Kim Jong-un. It was a moment which thrilled the press photographers, who sent their pictures around the world and set social media ablaze.

Afterwards, Kim Jong-Un, who did not attend, basked in the reflected glory. He used state media to unciously praise South Korea for its “very impressive” and “sincere” efforts in hosting the Olympics and spoke of a “warm climate of reconciliation and dialogue”.

Heading Due North

Only a few months ago, the same state media threatened to turn Seoul, Tokyo and Washington to dust. Yet South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-In – the son of North Korean refugees – longs to meet Kim Jong-Un face-to-face. At the Games, he was presented with an invitation to the North, which he will almost inevitably accept. Before agreeing to the trip, though, he is likely to press for a hiatus in its missile testing.

“The North Koreans used the Winter Olympic Games to try to shape an image of a country which is not isolated from the international community. The focus was on humanising and normalising their country’s image, even though it strives to be a nuclear state,” said Scott Snyder who directs the US-Korea Program at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington.

“We see athletes and cheerleaders and people doing taekwondo and we think these are normal people. We don’t think about the barbarity and cruelty that many North Koreans experience at the hands of the North Korean leadership,” said Mr Snyder.

Abe’s Dilemma

The Olympics created a dilemma for another of Kim Jong-Un’s threatened targets, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Mr Abe wanted to promote Japan as a friendly nation and also to support Japanese athletes, especially as Tokyo will host the Olympics in 2020.

Yet he was wary of being drawn into the propaganda campaign or to be seen as “going soft” on North Korea. He also has issues with South Korea, which often stirs up bad memories over the period when it was occupied by Japan.

Symbolic meetings

At the start of the games, Mr Abe met South Korea’s President Moon. He also briefly met with the ceremonial head of state of North Korea, Kim Jong Nam, who is, according to Scott Snyder from the Council on Foreign Relations “a staunch defender of the North Korean regime.”

Mr Abe’s aides told reporters that during that short meeting he raised the issues of missile tests and abducted Japanese citizens.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono later outlined to the Kyodo News Agency the reasons why Mr Abe attended the Olympics.

He said: “Without being swayed by North Korea’s smile diplomacy, Japan will firmly coordinate with the US and South Korea towards the ultimate goal of denuclearisation the Korean Peninsula.”

Mr Kono noted that North Korea conducted a military parade on the eve of the Olympics. “Its intention regarding nuclear and missile development has not changed,” he warned.

Professor Stephen Nagy from Tokyo International Christian University says: “North Korea has not shown any shift in its security calculus of attempting to consolidate its nuclear strategic deterrent. In fact, we have witnessed an acceleration in the scope and breadth of its program under Kim Jong-un, especially since the Trump election.”

Royal scandal shows the power of the tabloids

Freedom of speech in the media sometimes carries a heavy price Japan. It gives great power to the tabloid press, as the Imperial Family have found out to their cost this week.

Japan’s Princess Mako has announced she will be postpone her planned marriage to her fiance Kei Komuro for two years. This follows a report in the tabloids about Mr Komuro’s family background. Magazines have claimed there has been a dispute about money between Mr Komuro’s mother and a former partner.

The officials who represent the Imperial Family claim that the change of date for their marriage is unrelated to the tabloid reports but few people believe this.

Tabloid attention

Princess Mako and Mr Komuro announced their engagement last September and originally planned to wed in November this year. Since then, the tabloids have been trying to obtain stories about Mr Komuro and his family.

A magazine called Shukan Josei (Weekly Woman) first reported on his mother’s financial dealings with her ex-fiancé in December. A rival weekly, Josei Seven, suggested that the Imperial Household Agency did not run proper background checks on the Komuro family.

TV drama

Another person targeted by the tabloids recently is the TV news presenter Junichi Tosaka, who worked at NHK for 20 years. He planned to switch to the rival channel Fuji TV soon but has stepped down from that role because of allegations in a tabloid about his alleged sexual behaviour.

The most famous weekly tabloid magazine Shukan Bunshun has accused Mr Tosaka of sitting next to another newscaster at a restaurant, before “touching her knees as if he was rubbing her” and whispering to her to “sneak out of the restaurant together.”

This has some strong echoes of the allegations of sexual impropriety by men which have been highlighted in many countries by the “Me Too” social media campaign. Many powerful men have been named as predators.

Power not proof

Tabloids like the Shukan Bunshun can print almost any allegation without much proof and although most respectable people say they do not believe all things they read in gossipy magazines, they do hold considerable influence.

Their reports spread like wildfire online and are often picked up by the mainstream newspapers and broadcasters. Sometimes the international media picks them up too, as was the case with the story about Princess Mako’s fiance.

In a country where most people are very respectful towards privacy and hierarchy, the reporters from the weekly magazine often break the rules to get the stories. The greater a person’s fame, the more the tabloid magazines will dig for anything which connects them to scandal. I met some reporters from Shukan Bunshun in Tokyo and I asked them if they pay money for information and they told me that they do not.

However, the greater attention their stories receive, the more kudos the reporters earn. And the people they write about have few weapons to fight back. Even if they are not true, allegations in the press can ruin a person’s reputation, career and relationships.